The Never-Ending Battle: A Superman Triangle Era Retrospective #9 – Panic In The Sky by Cori McCreery

Panic In The Sky

Action Comics #674-675; Superman: The Man of Steel #9-10; Superman #65-66, Adventures of Superman #488-489; Triangle Numbers 1992 – 8-15

Writers: Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway; Pencillers: Bob McLeod, Jon Bogdanove, Dan Jurgens, Tom Grummett; Denis Rodier, Dennis Janke, Brett Breeding, Doug Hazlewood; Colorist: Glenn Whitmore; Letters: Bill Oakley, John Costanza, Albert De Guzman

This was one of the two arcs that was immediately available to me when I started reading comics, so this one remains special to me on a nostalgia level. My well-worn copy of this trade paperback as a kid had a foreword by long-time Action Comics writer Roger Stern (something the updated printing from 2016 does not include), where he talks about how the magic of the Superman offices of 1992 worked. In the days before regular access to high-speed internet and telecommunicating software, there were lots of phone calls between all the various creative teams. Beyond that, editor Mike Carlin kept each creative team up to date on the other team’s progress with their own issues, to make sure things within the line stayed on track. But most importantly during this era DC would have what were known was the “Super-Summits.” To quote Stern: 

“In order to maintain the consistency and cohesiveness of Superman’s corner of the universe, the powers-that-be at DC Comics graciously bring the various and sundry creators together once or twice a year for what we’ve come to call Super-Summit Meetings. During said meetings we gather in a secluded – often windowless – room for a brainstorming story conference that may last two to three days… Just about anything goes in these sessions, with writers and artists tossing in their ideas for what sort of dilemmas Superman and his friends and enemies should encounter next, while our fearless editor and his able assistant try to maintain some semblance of order… At any rate, somehow – amid all the wrangling and rampant silliness – something amazing happens. One creator will suggest something that strikes another’s fancy. A third will build upon that and inspire yet another. And slowly, the schedule sheets start filling up with the building blocks of future stories.” 

This insight into the process didn’t interest me enough as a 9 year old just discovering the medium, but as an adult who writes about the medium professionally, it’s a wealth of amazing knowledge. The collaboration and camaraderie of this era remains something that we rarely see in this industry, even with technology having advanced to facilitate this much easier. 

Along with the missing forward, the recent reprinting of this story’s trade paperback does not include the introductions each writer wrote for each chapter of the story. In his introduction to Action Comics #674, Stern addresses the challenges of writing the opening chapter of a long arc, and how he was responsible for bringing certain characters back into the fold. He also talked about poor, hapless, out-of-luck Jimmy Olsen and what this story would mean for that character.  This opening issue of the arc starts with Superman on an alien planet, in an alien dive-bar. But something is a little off about this Superman, his costume is grey and browns, a color-palette that long-time readers of the Superman books might recognize, but one that newer readers would miss. It’s revealed that this is the self-exiled Matrix, who left Earth back in Action Comics #644 while in this very costume. “Panic In The Sky” reached back to several of the touchstones that were established during Superman’s own space exile that followed the John Byrne era, including both Draaga and Warworld. Draaga still houses a grudge against Superman because Superman refused to kill him in combat on Warworld, so he eagerly searches out Superman when word of his appearance in this bar gets to him. Back on Earth, Jimmy gets the photos from the giant robot that attacked Stryker’s at Thanksgiving, and they’re good enough that he is sure they’ll get him back in the photography game. There’s also a page given to Hellgrammmite’s quest to assassinate Lex Luthor II. Meanwhile, in space, the cell keeper has taken “Superman” to visit the grave of the Cleric (from Superman #33). It’s not long before they’re interrupted by the vengeance seeking Draaga. Once Draaga leaves “Superman” unconscious the ruse is revealed, as Matrix reverts to it’s Supergirl form. The end of the issue reveals that Brainiac has enlisted the aid of Maxima and now runs Warworld in Mongul’s stead, and is leading his new army to conquer Earth, now with Supergirl’s mentally controlled help.

Louise Simonson introduces Superman: The Man of Steel #9 with an ode to the destruction that one can wreak in comic books. Comics are a medium that is less restrained by effects budgets, and only limited by the artist’s ability to illustrate the bombastic scenes that are written for them. WIth an artist of Jon Bogdanove’s caliber, that limit is almost nonexistent. And indeed, the action and destruction in this issue are incredible. As I’ve said before, no artist of this era is able to capture motion and kinetics quite like Bogdanove. The entire issue is just such non-stop action, even in it’s quieter moments. As the first full chapter of the story, it really sets a relentless pace for the following issues to follow. The ominous “WARWORLD IS COMING” establishes an urgency for what this arc is meant to be, in establishing Superman’s place again as the preeminent superhero of Earth. 

For his introduction to Superman #65, Dan Jurgens talks about the process of crafting a cover. He talks about how hard he worked to talk Mike Carlin into using the one that wound up being the cover to the issue, and truly, I can’t imagine the issue with any other cover, as this one despite its simplicity, is an absolutely iconic cover. The issue itself establishes the severity of Brainiac’s threat to the galaxy, as Brainiac dominates the New God Metron into obedience, but not before Metron can send the Mobius Chair away to warn whomever it can. Even more, Metron’s fellow New Gods, Lightray and Orion, are also handily defeated by Maxima and Supergirl, paving the way for Brainiac to gloat at Superman. With Superman organizing the team with which he’s going to fight this invasion, this arc also lays the groundwork for Jurgens’ Justice League America run, which would run tangentially to the next year of Superman stories (and even working into the arcs on two notable occasions). Jurgens also talked about why he included the characters he did, specifically Deathstroke and Aquaman. As a kid who knew nothing about any of the DC characters outside of Superman, it was easy to overlook Deathstroke’s inclusion. But even Jurgens justification of “It seemed to me that Superman would have nothing to do with him… until we realized he had vital tactical skills’ ‘ seems like a stretch for someone who knows anything about the character of Deathstroke. Jurgens does try his best to humanize Slade in the pages of the issue, this having been shortly after the death of his second son, the former Titan known as Jericho. But it still boggles the mind that any of these heroes would work with Slade. Jurgens’ reason for including Aquaman is better, in that Aquaman is a long time favorite character of his, and that he absolutely loves drawing underwater action sequences. This is something that has been evident through his run, as Jurgens will find excuses for underwater or rain sequences. 

Before Adventures of Superman #488, Jerry Ordway talks about how this story was originally pitched as a line-wide DC Universe crossover in the style of Millenium or Armageddon 2001, but was eventually dialed back to be just the Superman books, albeit with guest stars from across the line. He also talked about the process of building these stories and how far ahead they were often scheduled, with the plans for Panic In The Sky being in place for well over a year, and getting delayed due to the start of Superman: The Man of Steel as well. The issue itself launches right into action with the gathered heroes against the risen Headship. One interesting fact about the team of heroes is that they’re using “Kryptonese” as code, but this is well before a font had been designed for that language Post-Crisis, so letterer Albert De Guzman just uses various unusual characters for the language instead. Ordway also has a fantastic handle on the wide range of characters being used in the story, especially Guy Gardner and Captain Marvel. No surprise, as when he finally leaves the Superman books, he does so to start a new Power of SHAZAM! series to write more of the Big Red Cheese. Once the heroes reach Warworld, Grummett gets to flex his art chops and draw some incredible fight scenes. By the end of the issue, the heroes have Brainiac on his heels, having taken the proactive approach rather than a reactive one like he had been expecting. But for a villain like Brainiac, such setbacks are momentary at best, and there are still several chapters left in this event.

The introduction to Action Comics #675 was all about how daunting it would be to write so many characters, especially many from corners of the DC Universe often left untouched. Stern talks about how much he enjoyed writing even the briefest moments for Captain Marvel and the Forever People. I will point out that if you are reading this issue digitally there is a coloring error on the first page that doesn’t exist in the trades or the original issue. It’s fitting that the first hero to succumb to Brainiac’s schemes is the bullheaded Guy Gardner, since throughout the previous two issues he had been utterly insufferable about the plans and tactics that Superman had devised for this assault. I’ve never missed Hal Jordan more than when Guy is at his worst. Back on Earth, Jimmy Olsen finally has a good break, and gets a gig with Newstime to cover the invasion, which the Earthbound heroes are still working to manage on the streets. The street-level heroes are also aided by Luthor’s armored defense force, setting him up as a big hero in this saga. It is within this issue that we see the breadth of Brainiac’s hubris, in that he believes he is too smart to fail, and as such treats everyone below him as fodder. A final note on this issue, is that it is our fond farewell to Bob McLeod on Action Comics and it’s a heck of an issue to go out on. The next issue would see the debut of Jackson Guice on the book, a position he’d fill for the foreseeable future.

Much like the cover to Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 that it homages, the cover to Superman: The Man of Steel #10 foreshadows the heroic sacrifice portrayed within the issue. Indeed, that’s also the topic Louise Simonson chose to discuss in her introduction to the issue, that her hope was that Draaga’s actions in the issue were not overshadowed just because of the epic scope of the event as a whole. Another thing that Bogdanove does better than just about any artist in the industry is the ability to match other styles almost seamlessly. In this issue with so many characters it’s fun to see him going full Kirby for characters like the New Gods while at the same time echoing classic Captain Marvel illustrations on the same page. It’s worth noting that on an issue that has a cover homaging the death of the original, that Bogdanove’s Supergirl in this issue looks like a more modern take on Jim Mooney’s Silver-Age Supergirl, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The character arc that Draaga undergoes in this issue is astonishing, as Simonson has him finally understand why Superman’s ethos is so important, and has him realize that protecting those you care about is more honorable than vows of fights to the death. Draaga’s sacrifice inspires the rest of the heroes, and actually pulls Maxima from Brainiac’s side as well. In the end his sacrifice has all the meaning that Simonson hoped it would, and that, in part, is due to her incredible script that gave it the weight that it did. 

Introducing the final chapter of the event, Dan Jurgens talks about how the schedule was impacted by the introduction of Superman: The Man of Steel, and how that was actually beneficial in the long run, as it allowed Jurgens the perfect opportunity to plug Superman into his new Justice League. As Jurgens talked about the cover to Superman #65 in his introduction to that issue, I think it’s important to talk about the cover of this issue too. It’s a direct reference to that previous cover, but showing defeated skeletal heroes instead of the dynamic group shot of the previous cover. It’s also juxtaposed over a noisier background of bright purple and Kirby dot interference. Just as the first cover was elegant in its simplicity, this one is horrifying in the same simplicity. The climactic action relies on Maxima’s face turn, but in a last gasp Brainiac launched one final weapon, something that would come into play in the coming months. 

In the introduction to the epilogue chapter of the story, Jerry Ordway talks about how compromise comes into play in working on a story with so many moving pieces, and how the original plan had been to have Maxima take control of the leaderless Warworld, but that Dan Jurgens wanted to use her in his Justice League run. So instead, Orion and Lightray assume the leadership of the gladiatorial planet. In a quiet issue winding down from the event the Bad Luck Jimmy plotline is officially put to bed as he comes back to work full time at the Daily Planet. Things can’t stay quiet forever, though, as the end of the issue works to set up the next mini-arc that will run through the books, involving Husque from Superman #38-39. 

The last thing that the original trade contained that wasn’t included in the new printing (though four more issues were), is an afterword by long time Superman books editor Mike Carlin. In this he gives more insight into the editorial end of the process of managing so many interconnected books. Especially with a crossover this scope, it was seen as an opportunity to introduce new readers to characters, whether it was a Superman fan who found a connection to Aquaman, or a Deathstroke fan who discovered that the Superman books were really good. But really, what “Panic in the Sky” did was to set the stage for what a Superman event could be. And in a few short months readers would be introduced to one that would dwarf the scope of even this epic. 

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